Ten years have passed since the late Cardinal Stephen Kim Soo-hwan sadly passed away, leaving a giant shadow on the Korean Peninsula.
Marked by outstanding charity, generosity, and integrity, he was indeed a saint in every sense, who endured severe ordeals of socio-political turmoil in his time, but not without forgiving smiles and a cheerful sense of humor.
In his memory, a remarkable book of reminiscence recently came out under the title “The Memoirs of a Cardinal.” The author of the memoirs is Theresa Oh Duck-choo, who was a close friend of Cardinal Kim and had ample opportunities to closely observe him in his everyday life.
The pleasure of reading this book primarily comes from its candid portrayal of the great man, whose weaknesses and soft spots only make him look more human, as opposed to a flawless saint.
According to Oh, Cardinal Kim was a truly courageous civil leader. During the military dictatorship, he always protected students who were in danger of being arrested for their anti-government demonstrations. To the riot-police, he boldly protested: “If you want to arrest the students, you must tread upon me first and then my priests and nuns.” Unfortunately, we no longer have such a great man in our society.
In her book, Oh also recollects that he always abhorred violence of all sorts, including the violence of self-righteous people in the name of justice. That was why he was harshly criticized by radicals during the Roh Moo-hyun administration, who felt they were betrayed by the cardinal when he reprimanded their violent behavior and political vendettas.
According to the author of the book, he also valued life so much that he preached, “Nothing is more precious than life.” Oh writes, “How could those who believe that political ideologies override everything understand Jesus Christ or Cardinal Kim, who would not hesitate to leave 99 sheep unattended in order to find the one who is lost?”
In her book, she recalls that he was also a man with an extraordinary sense of humor. When asked what was “sarm” or life, he cheerfully answered, “Salmeun gyeran” which means both “A boiled egg” and “Life is an egg.” in Korean.
When people dared not to approach him due to his high rank, he muttered, smiling, “Come on, I don’t have a contagious disease.” Once a reporter asked him, “How many languages do you speak?” The cardinal replied, “I speak Japanese, German and English.” The he paused a moment and said, “There is one more, though.” “Well, what is it, Cardinal Kim?” asked the reporter. “That’s a lie,” answered the cardinal, chuckling. It could mean both “I lied” and “I also speak a language called lies.”
Oh writes that his last will stated, “Thank you so much. Love one another.” When his consciousness was briefly back two months before he passed away, he reportedly said, “We Koreans are diligent. And yet, we are not honest or law-abiding, we do not care about others, we tend to blame others and not to keep promises. And we are not grateful. We should overcome these weaknesses.”
Indeed, we should be honest. If we are not, we cannot trust each other. People would not trust any statistics or pronouncements of the government, either. If we are not honest, our society will fall apart like a sandcastle. To make matters worse, we will not be trusted by the international community.
We also should abide by the law. Unfortunately, our judges risk their reputations and even jobs these days when sentencing political prisoners or sending them to jail, due to the threats and protests from the people and politicians. It is a shame because such a phenomenon cannot be found in advanced countries. If people try to overthrow a judge’s sentence, we are not living in a society governed by law.
We should care about other people, too. Instead of being selfish and egotistical, we should be thoughtful and considerate. We should not blame others and learn to assume responsibility. And we should keep promises so we can be reliable and trustworthy.
Most importantly, we should be grateful. When someone helps us, we should not take it for granted. As for me, I am eternally grateful to the United States, without whose timely intervention in the Korean War, I could not have survived and lived in an affluent, democratic country.
Also, without my education in the States, I could not have become what I am today. Besides, America has opened my eyes to the world from early on, with its cultural and ethnic diversity. I am also grateful to Spain for honoring me with a government medal, and offering me an opportunity of teaching and living in the great country of beautiful harmony of Christian and Islamic cultures.
I am also so grateful to the late Cardinal Kim for his teachings and wisdom that constantly enlighten me. Kim Seong-kon
Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and a visiting professor at Kyunghee Cyber University. -- Ed.